Fairy Tales and Family Resemblance

For the last couple of years, I have taught a course called Fables and Tales, a class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.

Fables, fairy tales, and folklore are not exactly my area of expertise, though I find the topic fascinating. The first time I taught the course I spent nearly a hundred hours prepping  – mostly in background research, exploring sources and looking for creative and interesting readings and assignments – and enjoyed every minute of it. For a comparatist, the intersecting and overlapping nature of folklore is fertile ground. And from a pedagogical standpoint, the more connections I can make between stories, the better able I am to create a climactic arc for my course – to give students the sense that each part of the course is building on the last, that they are moving ever-closer to a goal. As both a scholar and a teacher, my impulse to look for literary connections and convergences kicks into overdrive.

My students, on the other had, tend to be a bit more circumspect, seeing connections between texts less readily than I do. I often open up discussions by asking students to test the limits of the relationships between stories, posing questions like, “Would you call this a Cinderella story?”, “Are Snow-drop (Schneewittchen) and Snow White really the same person?”, “Is Biancabella more similar to Snow White or Cinderella?”, etc. While they sometimes make interesting and unexpected connections between stories, a sizable chunk of them will tell me they don’t see any connections at all. They’re particularly skeptical of more abstract connections, where the details of the story are adapted to emphasize particular thematic concerns, such as the interpretation of Bluebeard as a serial adulterer.

As they have challenged me on my own comparative impulse, I’ve thought more deeply about the relationships between texts, and my own agency as a scholar in asserting and depicting those relationships. I’ve also explored ways to clarify and support the relationships I identify for my students. As I searched for a framework to make these relationships more compelling, I remembered my study of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances, which seemed in many ways uniquely suitable.

Wittgenstein famously used the resemblances among members of a single family as an analogy for the operation of signification. The individual members of a family may all resemble each other, without necessarily all sharing one specific trait in common. A and B may have the same nose, while B, C, and D have the same hair, and A, C, and E have similar eyes. Though there is no single unifying factor, when I look at the individuals in a group, there are enough overlapping elements among the members that I can tell they belong to the same family. Wittgenstein found this a helpful model for understanding the various uses and meanings of words. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, this means there is no necessary “essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through ‘a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing’.”

This theory of “family resemblance” has since been applied to many areas of humanistic study. Within literary scholarship, it has been used by scholars as a framework for thinking about genre. According to David Fishelov, when this framework is applied

literary genres are perceived as structured categories, with a ‘hard core’ consisting of prototypical members. These prototypical members are characterized by the fact that they bear a relatively high degree of resemblance to each other…. [O]ne can establish a ‘genealogical’ line of literary genres, i.e., the series of writers who have participated in shaping, reshaping and transmitting the textual heritage established by the ‘founding father’ of the genre, including the dialectical relationship of ‘parents’ and ‘children’ in genre history.

Thus, the notion of family resemblance can help us to think through both historical patterns of transmission and influence, as well as structural, thematic, and material similarities among texts. More importantly, it provides a method for classifying without making rigid distinctions – a means of delineating categories while still accommodating multinodal networks of textual intersections.

While I have encountered several scholarly works applying the concept of family resemblance to genre theory, I have come across less evidence of this theory being applied to folktales (though, again, this is not my area of expertise). But Wittgenstein’s framework seems especially appropriate for describing the multiplication of folktale variants as the stories have migrated and mutated over their history. Indeed, a model that allows for multiple points of convergence, rather than rigid distinctions of category, seems necessary to describe the multifarious nature of stories that were frequently taken apart and reassembled in new configurations. In her study of Tamil folklore, Gabriella Ferro-Luzzi has pointed out:

The folk narrator has at the back of his mind a pool of motifs selecting from them what he feels is appropriate for his purpose. I see his creations as a polythetic network of connected tales. Polythetic, meaning ‘multiple arrangement’, is the scientific term for Wittgenstein’s family resemblance.” (164).

Thus, the notion of family resemblances may be considered not only a useful way of thinking through the overlapping story elements shared across folktales, but also uniquely appropriate to the processes by which folklore is generated and disseminated.

Already, the idea of a folkloric family tree has influenced quantitative analyses of folk tales and new methods of classification. Adapting computer software developed for the study of evolutionary biology, scholars have used phylogenetic methods to reconstruct folklore genealogies.

But the notion of family resemblances can go beyond tracing the history of folkloric transmission and influence; it can be applied to investigate the copresence of symbols, tropes, motifs, and plot elements across cultural traditions, to help us interrogate the function of fables and tales within their respective cultures. When a certain story, or piece of a story, shows up in different times and places – when we can recognize an analogous narrative logic at work – identifying these resemblances can allow us to examine the operation of storytelling within the emotional and psychological imagination of a culture. As we explore the various recurrences of certain folkloric fixations, we can map how they may serve as a vehicle for social critique, or confrontation with our fears or anxieties; how, conversely, they may reflect and reaffirm a sense of social or cultural identity, including normative beliefs and values; and finally, how they may serve to generate a sense of community, by evoking a shared memory and experience.

In my classroom discussions, I’ve used debates about the comparability of folk tales to open up a conversation about the nature of literary influence and migration, allusion, and intertextuality, as well as why it might be interesting and productive to read texts in conversation with each other.

In fact, now that I have begun teaching this class, I’m surprised something of the kind isn’t considered an intrinsic component of more literature curricula. (My undergraduate English department didn’t even offer such a course.) Examining transformations and permutations of folk tales provides an incredibly useful paradigm for understanding the function of literary signification more generally. As they compare different variations on the same or similar stories, my students have the opportunity to think about how specific details of the story and choices of the author – imagery, emplotment, diction, etc. – can impact the meaning of the story and influence the response of the reader.


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